There aren’t many things in the NBA more polarizing than Sam Hinkie and his team building strategies. The Philadelphia 76ers aren’t the first team to attempt a slash-and-burn rebuild, but few have been so single-minded and so blatant about sacrificing the present on the altar of the future. The 76ers are the plot of “Major League” come to life, making moves almost as if they were intended to generate think pieces and troll the purveyors of conventional wisdom. Some think it’s immoral, some think it’s brilliant and seemingly everyone has an opinion.
They traded a 22-year-old coming off an All-Star season for two lottery picks. They took big men coming off season-ending injuries in consecutive years, knowing neither could play as a rookie. They drafted another guy in the lottery even though he wouldn’t be able to come over to the NBA for at least a few seasons. They traded the reigning Rookie of the Year for yet another future lottery pick. Only two of their five lottery picks from 2013-2015 are on their active roster in 2016 and they both play the same position.
Everything the 76ers do is with the long-term in mind. They haven’t been signing veterans into their cap space, instead using every spot on the roster and in the rotation to cycle through unheralded young players in an attempt to find diamonds in the rough. When they do acquire veterans, they are eating salaries to pick up future assets, like when they picked up Jason Thompson and Carl Landry from the Sacramento Kings to get Nik Stauskas and some pick swaps years into the future. Thompson is already gone, traded away for future draft considerations.
Three years into the Hinkie era, the 76ers are no closer to fielding a competitive team but they are overflowing with assets. They have a roster full of interesting young players - Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor, Robert Covington, Tony Wroten, Hollis Thompson, Jerami Grant, Nik Stauskas, Jakarr Sampson, Pierre Jackson - as many as four picks in the 2016 draft - their own, the Lakers (Top 3 protected), the Heat (Top 10 protected) and the Thunder (Top 15 protected) - and a few outstanding gambles that still have a chance to end up as massive pay-outs - Joel Embiid, Dario Saric and those Kings pick swaps.
The underlying logic behind Hinkie’s plan is the best way to win a championship is to have a Top 5 player and the best way to get those guys is at the top of the draft. The problem is that legitimate franchise players are hard to find regardless of how many games you lose or assets you accumulate - they aren’t in every draft and you literally have to win a lottery to get them when they are. Turning four quarters into a dollar is the hardest trade in the NBA to make.
That’s why they took Embiid at No. 3 despite all his medical flags. If he had a clean bill of health, he would have been the No. 1 overall pick in just about any draft, even one as stacked as 2014. As a 7’0 with the potential to be an elite offensive player and elite defensive player, he’s their one guy with the upside to be a Top 5 player. The problem is that he hasn’t played in a game since March 2014 and the 76ers would probably consider themselves fortunate if he was playing in November 2016. That’s a lot of developmental time for any young player to miss, much less one who picked up the sport at 15. A big man with a bad back, bad feet and a bad attitude about his rehab has enough red flags to drive a bull insane.
Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor have a lot of talent, but neither has Embiid’s two-way potential and there’s no guarantee they end up fitting well together. Noel should be an elite interior defender but there are questions about his ability to space the floor and create his own shot. Okafor should be an elite interior scorer but there are questions about his ability to protect the rim and defend in space. A smaller team can pack the paint against Noel and Okafor on offense and force them to extend out all the way out to the three-point line on defense. In a league getting smaller by the year, it’s hard to play two C’s with holes in their game together. Embiid could theoretically fit with either but that’s why he’s such a freakish talent (in theory).
What that means is there could be more trades in the 76ers future, which would push their timetable to contend even farther down the road. At that point, the question becomes when does enough become enough? This will be their third year of being one of the worst teams in the NBA and they still don’t have a core of young players to build around and maybe only one guy on hand, whether it ends up being Noel or Okafor, who will be a starter on their next 50-win team. Say what you want about them but they certainly aren’t taking any shortcuts when it comes to rebuilding.
The two biggest knocks on the way the 76ers have been doing business is that it’s hard to develop young guys without veteran mentors on the roster and that all that losing creates a ton of bad habits. The reality is they haven’t really cared about the habits their young guys have been developing over the last two seasons because most of those guys won’t be around two seasons from now. They are just trying to find NBA-caliber players on cheap contracts and the opportunity to play is the biggest thing those guys need. Heavy roster turnover is a fact of life in the NBA and a lot of guys have overcome terrible situations early in their careers to become successful players.
Robert Covington is a perfect example. No matter what ends up happening in Philadelphia, he’s going to hang around the NBA for a long time because he’s 6’9, he’s athletic and he can shoot 3’s. He just needed a chance to play after going undrafted out of Tennessee State and spending his rookie season bouncing back and forth from the D-League at the end of the bench in Houston. The 76ers could let him play 28 minutes a night and sink or swim because there weren’t any veterans ahead of him. At this stage in the building process, they aren’t wasting shots or minutes on guys who won’t be around when they are actually trying to win games.
And for every guy like Covington who thrived in Philadelphia, there are three guys like Brandon Davies, Larry Drew II and Alexey Shved whom we may never see again in the NBA. That’s the nature of the operation that the 76ers are running - it’s a numbers game. They have run the numbers and they know that enough guys slip through the cracks the first time they come through the league that it’s worth giving unproven guys a shot as opposed to a veteran on the downside of his career whose already shown what he will be.
It doesn’t take a genius to run a numbers game. Anyone can buy scratch-off tickets and keep playing until they win. The key is having someone with a lot of money and a lot of patience bankrolling the operation. Hinkie hasn’t done anything the vast majority of GM’s around the league couldn’t. The difference is that he has a majority owner who has totally bought into what he is selling. He’s just a tool Josh Harris is using to try and pull an end-around on the rest of the league.
The common denominator on Hinkie’s most well-received trades is him taking advantage of front offices operating on a much shorter timetable than the endless vista the 76ers owners provide. The New Orleans Pelicans were trying to build around Anthony Davis immediately. The Sacramento Kings were trying to end a rebuilding process that had stretched out for almost a decade and field a relevant team when they opened a new arena in 2016. Most NBA teams view picks in 2020 as so far in the future they might as well not exist. It’s not hard to win trades in terms of expected value when you are thinking long in a league where everyone else is thinking short.
The real trick is turning all those assets into good players and developing those players into a good team and that’s what we still need to see from Hinkie. Building through the draft is great on paper but that still requires a front office that can identify talent and fit it all together - just look at what happened in Cleveland from 2010-2013. Hinkie has accumulated a lot of lottery tickets. Now all he has to do is turn a few of them into winners.